Whenever Gunars Elmuts would make vegan dishes like chicken Parmesan for friends in his Clinton Hill apartment, he had the same dilemma: When it came to the cheese, there just wasn’t anything on the market that came close to the real thing.
“You get to the Parmesan part, that’s the part that I couldn’t trick them,” said Elmuts, 43, a vegan for seven years. He decided that he needed to make a dairy-free cheese where people would have “no excuse” but to use it.
The result is NUMU. About two years ago, Elmuts started dabbling with recipes in his kitchen, finally landing on a mozzarella made with soy beans and coconut oil that he thought tasted and melted like the real thing. But he wanted to see if it would stand up outside of his kitchen.
After a well-received tasting at famed Carroll Gardens pizzeria Lucali — where NUMU made a promotional video — Elmuts realized he had something. He started making the vegan mozzarella in a commissary in Long Island City and got it on its first restaurant menu in June 2016 at Greenwich Village eatery Carroll Place.
Less than a year later, 11 restaurants are carrying NUMU. and the demand has far exceeded the production capacity. Elmuts recently moved into a bigger facility near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and continues to make the cheese in small batches.
“We sort of went into overdrive because everyone just started writing and asking for the cheese,” said Jill Carnegie, managing partner at NUMU. “The demand was there immediately.”
Greenpoint pizzeria Paulie Gee’s was among those interested early on in NUMU. Owner Paul Giannone has offered vegan pizzas for a few years now, but wouldn’t put any vegan mozzarella on them.
“We just found other ways to create vegan pies that still had umami,” Giannone said. “We never really came across a cheese that really was appropriate. And then this came along.”
Kitchen manager Andrew Brown found NUMU’s promotional video on Instagram last summer and was immediately intrigued.
“This looked and melted like the real thing,” said Brown, who alerted Giannone, who then called up Lucali asking if NUMU was the real deal.
“I’m not going to put cheese on just because it’s vegan, that’s just not going to happen,” Giannone said.
NUMU ultimately passed the taste test — “I was happy, it was really good,” Giannone said — and is used in several of Paulie Gee’s vegan pies. Since he added NUMU to the menu, Giannone said “more than once” people have sent the vegan pies back thinking they accidentally got the dairy version.
NUMU currently can only be found at NYC restaurants, where it’s used in everything from mac and cheese at Urban Vegan Kitchen in the West Village to sandwiches at Haymaker’s Corner Store in Williamsburg to pizzas at Paulie Gee’s and Screamer’s.
“The initial idea behind it was to be artisanal, high-end, only the best pizzerias like Paulie Gee’s,” Elmuts said. “We wanted chefs to use it first so [customers] see it in the best possible light.”
A retail component may also be part of NUMU’s future down the line, Elmuts said.
The ultimate goal is to make NUMU as common as “soy milk in coffee shops,” Carnegie said.
“We want to be the most versatile [vegan] cheese on the market where … it’s just like regular cheese — you slice it, grate it, whatever you want to do with it,” Elmuts said. “It becomes just ubiquitous in all the pizza joints, in all the sandwich shops.”
Here are the restaurants so far using NUMU for pizzas, sandwiches and more:
Paulie Gee’s, 60 Greenpoint Ave., Greenpoint, 347-987-3747, pauliegee.com
Screamer’s Pizzeria, 620 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint, 347-844-9412, screamerspizzeria.com
Rizzo’s Fine Pizza, 17 Clinton St., 646-454-1262, rizzosfinepizza.com
Pie Smith, 679 Grand St., Williamsburg, 929-295-0472, piesmithny.com
Carroll Place, 157 Bleecker St., 212-260-1700, carrollplacenyc.com
Urban Vegan Kitchen, 41 Carmine St., 646-438-9939, urbanvegankitchen.com
Champs Diner, 197 Meserole St., Williamsburg, 718-599-2743, champsdiner.com
Cienfuegos, 95 Ave. A, 212-614-6818, cienfuegosny.com
Ladybird (temporarily closed while it relocates to the East Village), ladybirdny.com
Haymaker’s Corner Store, 176 Ainslie St., Williamsburg, 718-963-0656
Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor, 1135 Amsterdam Ave., 917-675-6835, artsandcraftsbarnyc.com